Monday, 19 November 2007

Aspects of Chartism: Did Chartism fail?

Repeated failure sapped the momentum of Chartism. To sustain the mass platform the movement needed to maintain a widespread belief that success was possible and the Chartists never came near to achieving their ‘six points’ in the 1830s and 1840s.. The events of 1839 seriously damaged its capacity to do this. The defeat of the general strike in 1842 and the crushing failure of 1848 completed the process. The mass imprisonment, transportation and successful confrontation of mass demonstrations during the three main phases of the Chartist agitation contributed significantly to the disintegration of the movement. This represented the growing confidence and enhanced efficiency of the coercive powers of the British State[1]. The authorities inflicted the most damaging psychological defeat on the popular reform movement of the century, bankrupting the long tradition of the mass platform. Without the physical assault on the militant sections of the Chartist leadership and of many of the secondary leaders, the aftermath in the 1850s might have been different.

In part, this was a result of the organisational weakness of the movement. Lack of administrative experience was clearly exposed by the ways in which the Conventions were organised and financed. Rejection of the three petitions showed how little parliamentary support the Chartists had. The reforming movement of 1830-32 and the activities of the Anti-Corn Law League, both of which used similar tactics to Chartism to gain support, were successful because they had parliamentary allies. With little parliamentary backing or solid middle class support, the Chartist movement found itself either having to give up or raise and maintain public support or opt for less peaceful methods. This divided leadership and rank and file, creating bitterness and lack of tactical direction. Chartists could agree on the Charter but on little else. To Lancashire cotton workers, Chartism held out the prospect of economic improvement and factory reform. To the London artisan, it pointed the way to political equality. The Chartist leaders also had different objectives. For Lovett the vote was part of a general programme of social improvement; for Ernest Jones Chartism was equated with socialism; and, for O’Connor the franchise was the political counterpart of his schemes at land reform. Loss of momentum within the movement meant that Chartism could not maintain a unity of purpose.

Economic conditions played an important role in failure to maintain unity of purpose. Though there has been a reaction against the simple economic explanations, the fundamental importance of the trade cycle cannot be neglected. The difficulty of maintaining unity, except during economic slumps, was universally recognised by contemporaries. The changes that occurred in the policies and attitudes of government, in part the result of Chartism can be seen as evidence of its partial success. The movement drew attention to social problems and the need to tackle them. There was some liberalisation of state policies in the 1840s. This weakened the Chartist case that only a reformed parliament would improve the conditions of the working population.

A final explanation for the demise of Chartism lies in the consolidation of industrial capitalism that had occurred by 1850. In the previous fifty years, industrial change had created militancy among the working population who believed that political reform alone could arrest or reverse this process. By 1850, this battle had more or less been lost and Chartism remained relevant only in places like Halifax and Bradford where the woollen and worsted trades still fought rearguard actions against mechanisation. Militancy was associated with the traumas of early stages of industrialisation. Chartism was crucial in the shift from older forms of popular protest to the development of new ones, like the general strike and pressure group activity, more effective in a mature industrial urban society.

Chartism was the first organised, mass movement of the working population in British history in terms of its geographical and occupational breadth and the unprecedented involvement of women. Nevertheless, it did not draw on trade unionism in any formal way or bridge the gulf between rural and urban workers. It did not mark a vital stage in the inevitable progress of organised labour. Chartism was motivated by ‘knife and fork’ issues but was also concerned with the dignity of the individual and the ‘rights of man’. It looked back to the campaigns of the 1790s and forward to the emergence of socialism as a political force from the 1880s.

  • The main problem was how to achieve a revolutionary goal by constitutional means.
  • It failed to obtain parliamentary support for the Charter.
  • The middle-classes largely ignored, shunned or condemned Chartism.
  • Chartists were divided among themselves. George Julian Harney, a Chartist leader said in 1848, “faction has cut the throat of Chartism”.
  • Government handled the movement firmly and calmly.
  • Chartist demands were too drastic.
  • There was too much diversity in the intellectual and ideological aims of Chartism. This was particularly evident after 1840 though the division between the aspirations of artisans and the working class generally was evident from the outset.
  • In 1839, the Chartist detected considerable indifference to the movement among working people. Many people were committed to the daily task of survival. Any serious commitment to political action depended on a conviction that this was relevant to survival. The task of the Chartists was to persuade them of this.
  • Other movements like trade unions offering more immediate and tangible benefits attracted Chartists.
  • The socio-economic position improved after 1842. Prosperity reduced mass support.
  • Chartism and the Chartists were made to look ridiculous after Kennington Common and the failure of the Land Plan.
  • The changing sociology of England after railways fragmented the ‘unity’ of the working classes.
  • Chartism tore itself apart.

The fact that Chartism did not achieve the ‘six point’ does not mean that it achieved nothing. Chartism was fundamental to the development of a distinctive culture among working people especially in the industrial areas of Lancashire and Yorkshire. Although this culture was complex, certain aspects seem clear:

  • There was considerable scepticism and often hostility toward the state that united the interests of the propertied middle and upper classes. For some Chartists, the state was opposed because it continued to represent (though in different ways and in different circumstances) the ‘Old Corruption’ of the pre-1832 period. For others, it was the increased power of the state after 1832 that was the main cause of discontent. Chartism accommodated both views.
  • Out of this scepticism emerged a fierce determination on the part of the working classes to pursue interests independently. This involved a number of objectives (educational, moral, temperance, Christian, trade union etc.) that were not always mutually exclusive. Chartism, however, provided the essential focus.
  • From Chartism, specific lessons in how to protest, to organise and spread the message of dissent emerged. These lessons were not forgotten whatever the direction that older Chartists took. The many autobiographies from the mid- and late-nineteenth century confirm the importance of Chartism on working class lives.

The variegated approaches to political and social change inherent in Chartism in the 1830s and 1840s continued after 1848. Ex-Chartists moved into socialism or into, or back into trade unionism. Others again agitated for temperance reform as the key to unlock the potential of the working man. Vincent and Lovett remained sturdy working class educators to the end. Many ex-Chartists found the mid-nineteenth century Liberal Party extremely accommodating as its Whig leaders saw the political advantage of encouraging a radical wing that no longer looked to pull down the pillars of the state. ‘Liberal radicalism’ became an increasingly influential force in the 1850s and 1860s and from it came renewed demands for parliamentary reform that was answered (somewhat opportunistically) by Disraeli and the Conservatives in the 1867 Reform Act.

Chartists after 1848 took different routes. In the textile and engineering centre of Oldham, for example, some ex-Chartists who had co-operated with the Tory humanitarian John Fielden during the factory reform campaigns of the mid-1840s grew closer to the Conservative Party because, as the Oldham delegate to the 1848 Convention asserted, the laissez faire ideology of Liberals and Peelites was “the most heartless and destructive doctrine ever taught in any country”. Others moved happily into Liberal radicalism. The records of the weaver-dominated Chartist branch of the National Charter Association in Great Horton (Bradford) survive from 1840 to 1866 and clearly show that it evolved into a very different organisation. In the 1860s and 1870s, it embraced the co-operative movement and Liberal radicalism.

The history of Chartism after 1850 showed that individuals had their own order of priorities, their own definitions of freedom and their own views of the relationship between power and knowledge and between the individual and the state. For this reason, Chartists reacted differently to the economic and political progress of the mid-Victorian period. Some became Liberal radicals; some moved into independent Labour politics while others retired in confusion and bitterness. However, they all retained that tough and independent spirits that had made them ‘irreconcilables’ in the 1830s and 1840s. The legacy of Chartism lay in a growing acceptance that accommodation was better than revolution as a means of extending direct working class involvement in the political process through the intensely symbolic right to vote and as a necessity for a state that recognised that change could not be resisted and that an individual’s ‘worth’ could not simply be defined in terms of property.


[1] John Saville 1848: The British State and the Chartist Movement, Cambridge, 1987 considers the development of the coercive powers of the state. It is also considered in volume 2: chapter 4.

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